An interview with Sharon Blackie
What is your writing about, and how does it relate to your teaching and lecturing work?
At heart, I’d say it’s about the mythic imagination: the ways in which myth and story can inform our lives. The ways in which myths and fairy tales offer us a more enriching set of values to live by. These are the stories which remind us that, tucked up safe in the rambling, roundabout lines between once upon a time and happily ever after, lie all the secrets for a meaningful, sustainable life. They show us what it might be like to inhabit a world in which humans are fully enmeshed. In this world, animals always have something to teach us, trees and plants can save or cure us, and wise old men and women are waiting in the dark woods to help us. That sense of awe, of connection, of belonging to a mysterious world which has many depths and layers to explore, is missing in so much of our lives today. What I’m passionate about, in both my writing and teaching, is capturing the imagination, and conveying that sense of living in a world saturated with enchantment.
What was the book that made you first want to become an author?
I was a voracious reader as a small child, and a great lover of myths and fairy tales. But there was something about Victoria Walker’s The Winter of Enchantment (which, according to my scribbles on the inside cover of the battered copy I still carry around with me, I read when I was 10) that really captured my imagination. I read it again and again. Somehow, this other world that she invented was infinitely more real and desirable to me than those in the Enid Blyton books, with their rather more ‘twee’ fairylands, that I’d been given when I was younger. I went on from there very rapidly to discover Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, Tolkien, and similar creators of other worlds, but it was Walker’s book that first introduced me to fantasy and mythic fiction. It helped me understand how it was possible to translate a love of myth and folklore into a new work of fiction that could captivate, and it made me want to create my own worlds in which I could help readers not only find pleasure, but depth – and ultimately, ways of reimagining themselves.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Literature was hugely influential in my life from the moment when I first learned to read, but when I was young, I never thought working-class girls like me could be writers. The first books I was given to read as a small child were decidedly middle-class. Although I grew up on Enid Blyton, I couldn’t ever really relate to the children in her books; their lives were utterly foreign to me. Then, at school, we never read contemporary novels in literature classes, but rather the so-called ‘classics’ – and they too were written by people who all seemed to be from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. So it took a while, until I was in my early teens and came across a more contemporary bunch of writers from backgrounds that were rather more like mine, for me to understand that it was possible.
During my early years of high school, we were asked to write a ‘novel’ in English class. (Mine was in the science fiction genre.) Of course, I’m talking about a tiny, tiny word count. But even so, we had to think about plot, and characters, and themes, and all of the things we’d studied in the novels we’d read and dissected over the years. What I created wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but I loved the challenge of putting it together. I think that was the point at which I became hooked.
Why did you want to be a writer, and why do you still want to be?
Because I had found books to be so transformative in my own young life. They’d shown me different ways of being in the world – and don’t forget, I grew up in a world in which there was no internet, and we never had the ability to travel, so books really were the only way I had of experiencing the world outside of my own very narrow upbringing. For most of my childhood, we didn’t have a TV – but we lived very close to a wonderful small library, and I devoured several books a week. The books I read expanded my consciousness and introduced me to a universe of ideas which fascinated me. The idea that I might one day write books which were similarly transformative for others was a huge motivator. It still is.
Which were the books that you found especially transformative?
Oh goodness – so many. But I can point to two in particular. When I was 16 and studying for ‘A’ level English literature, the first novel we were offered was The Rainbow, by D.H. Lawrence. That shook me to the core, and it’s still one of my favourite books ever. It was the ways in which the characters were so attuned to the rhythms of the earth, and then the inexorable rise of what Lawrence called ‘the Machine’ – of industrialisation. The profoundly sensual imagery took hold of me – Anna and Will dancing in a hayfield, for example – and it’s stayed with me ever since. And then, around the same time, for ‘A’ level French literature, we studied Albert Camus’ L’Étranger. Again, that opened up a whole world of philosophical ideas that occupied me for years.
What got you started as a writer?
Finally having a story to tell. I tried several times in my twenties and thirties to construct a novel (I always and only ever wanted to write novels) but somehow my heart wasn’t in it. I think perhaps that’s because I was living the wrong life at the time. It wasn’t till I was in my late thirties, living in America, working again in a corporate job, and on my second major midlife crisis, that I began to find that necessary story. At that time, I needed to finally, finally break out of the corporate world that I’d reverted to after a messy and expensive divorce, but an impoverished and challenging childhood had made me always fearful and far too hung up on security. One day, shortly after JF Kennedy Jr had died piloting his small airplane, I took it into my head that I needed to learn to fly. It might sound crazy, but it made perfect sense to me at the time – because I was afraid of flying. And I had come to believe that if I didn’t find some way to break out of the anxiety and fear that seemed to be dominating my life, and stare death right in the face, I’d never really learn to fully live. Well, to cut a long story short, it worked. Several months later, I was handed the pink piece of paper which would enable me to apply for my private pilot’s license by a crusty old ex-US Marine, in the heart of the New Mexico desert. It had been a long and profoundly transformative journey, and by the end of it I figured that if I could do that, I could do anything. So I handed in my notice, bought a small rundown croft on the far north-west coast of Scotland, and reimagined my life. Shortly afterwards I fulfilled that childhood dream and wrote my first book – a novel, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, which incorporated some of that flying journey, as well as a healthy dose of folklore and selkie stories.
What do you love most, and hate most, about being a writer?
I love the freedom to work when it suits you. I love the immersion into my own imaginal world – isn’t it amazing that this is my actual job?! I love language, agonising over precisely the right words and images. I love threading myth into the story-cloth; it feels like the most profound act of creation – like weaving the world into being. I love hearing from readers that my books have changed them, or helped them to see something in their lives more clearly, or to understand themselves better.
I don’t hate much about it. Sometimes, I struggle with book deadlines – not because I’m bad at keeping to them: quite the opposite. But if I’m not careful, they can hem me in and kill inspiration. Sometimes, books need longer to incubate than you’d first imagined; deadlines run the risk of cutting that process short. Sometimes I’m frustrated by the need to spend long hours at a computer. Then of course, there are the days when coherent and beautiful words just won’t come, and you have to learn to walk away.
What is your writing process?
I write in the mornings; it just doesn’t seem to work for me in the afternoons – maybe I’m just too tired by then, and all out of words. The way I write depends on what I’m writing: so fiction seems to require a different process from nonfiction. Nonfiction is more like work. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, but there’s always quite a bit of research to do, and ideas to consciously weave in. Fiction is much less conscious. It’s more like doing magic. I always write nonfiction at my desk; fiction always begins cosied up in a comfortable armchair with a laptop. I dream my way into fiction; nonfiction is a more intellectual process. With fiction, I love the very early morning dreamtime, when I’m not long out of bed, and I can sit quietly before the day has begun for anyone else. I’m a super-early riser, and that’s my most productive time.
What are some of the themes that have preoccupied you?
I’d say there are two threads which make their way into everything I write, in one way or another. First: the possibility, and the necessity, of change. All of the ways in which we transform ourselves throughout our lives. I believe very strongly that we’re not meant to be static, to somehow ‘settle into ourselves’ and consider that’s the job done. If we’re not changing, we’re not learning and we’re not growing. I’m not talking about change for change’s sake; I’m talking about an organic process of adapting to the flow of our lives, of living in a state of constant becoming.
Second: place as one of the greatest teachers in our lives. We have a tendency to focus on people as teachers, and of course they are – but so are places. Place defines, and perhaps confines, our possibilities and our choices. Places reflect us back at ourselves in so many different ways. The person I am in the desert is different from the person I am by the sea. The landscape awakens different facets of who I am, and who I might one day become.
What advice would you give to budding writers?
More than anything – learn the craft. Put the time in; appreciate the necessity of apprenticeship to the craft of writing. It’s not easy, and it takes time. Don’t think it doesn’t matter if your grammar isn’t great, or if you can’t punctuate to save your life. It does matter. There’s only so much a copyeditor can fix. Having a good story isn’t enough; you have to learn how to craft a good scene, create characters that people can believe in, and so much more. Perhaps more than anything, when you’re learning that craft, learn also to take constructive criticism. Don’t just look for praise or pats on the back, or you’ll never grow as a writer.
What is your most beloved and well-read book?
I have so many that have travelled with me around the world, from house to house. But if I were to pick one that I return to again and again during this stage in my life, it would be Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, as well as his other books that feature that wonderful old witch, Granny Weatherwax. It always frustrates me when Pratchett is written off as ‘just’ a comic writer, although those attitudes seem to be shifting a little now; there’s a depth to his witch books which I adore. I particularly love that his witches are products of their places, and especially the geology on which they live – Granny Weatherwax could never be anything other than a granite witch. ‘Witches is a different thing altogether. […] It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky’, she says in Equal Rites. A few hours in her company settles me when nothing else will, and I for sure plan to model my old age on her. She is my favourite fictional character in the whole world.
Is there a book that broke your heart?
I wrote about this one in If Women Rose Rooted, so perhaps I’ll just quote from that book:
One week just before the Christmas of 2009, taking some rare time out, I read The Crossing, the middle book in McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy’. It is the story of a boy who lives on a cattle ranch, and rescues a she-wolf from a trap he himself has set. The boy decides to take her back across the border to the mountains of Mexico, where he believes she came from. He travels with the injured and wary wolf, developing a deep bond with her, but once they’re in Mexico she is captured by officials who impound her and hand her over to a group of local men. They take her into an arena, where she is going to be made to fight every one of the town’s dogs in turn.
The boy, knowing that she will sooner or later be torn apart, tries to rescue the heavily pregnant wolf, but he doesn’t succeed. He leaves the arena, fetches his rifle, returns, and shoots the wolf in the head. He then trades his rifle for the wolf’s carcass, and takes her to the hills astride his horse, to bury her:
“He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur. He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun’s coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her … He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh … But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.”
The world cannot lose it – but if I understood anything now, I understood that the world was going to lose it. We were going to lose it, we humans, and we didn’t seem even to care. I broke down completely. I didn’t know quite what it was that I was weeping for, but I felt as if my heart was caving in. For the wolf, for all wolves, for all the pregnant females who are beaten by men, for all wild things, for the cruelty of humans, for the heart-broken boy, for my dogs, for the future death of my dogs, for the beauty of words, for my life, for all our lives, for the whole world which we were turning into a Wasteland. For all the Wastelands of the human spirit, for the Wasteland that I was creating out of my own life.
That book was the final straw; it precipitated a change which had been building up for some time, and as a direct consequence, my husband and I decided to move to the farthest, most remote reaches of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, where we stayed for four utterly transformative years.
What other writers inspired your writing?
There are far too many to mention; I’ve loved so many books. But writers I particularly admire, and whose work I especially relate to, would include Janette Turner Hospital, Alice Thomas Ellis, Emily Brontë, Doris Lessing and D.H. Lawrence.
What book would you most like to have written?
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I don’t know why I find it so perfect, but I do. It’s a bundle of perfect things: the beauty of the language, the fragmentation of the narrative, the memorability of the images … Unusually, I adored the film version, too.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I don’t think so; I’m never entirely sure what it means. I think there are times when you’re writing the wrong book, or not ready to write the book you’re trying to write, and maybe it’s easier to call that ‘writer’s block’ rather than interrogate the reasons why it’s all going wrong. That happened to me with my second novel. I’d received a generous yearlong grant from what was then the Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) to write it. But halfway through, I lost my grip on it completely. For a number of reasons – but mostly because I’d simply ceased to believe in it. Now, thirteen years on, I’m ready to write that novel – though it’ll turn out to be quite a different animal, in the end. I don’t think of that as writer’s block. It was just the wrong book at that time; now it’s the right book for this time. I’ve grown into it, and it’s shapeshifted into something that I really believe in and badly want to write.
Do you believe that everyone has a book in them?
I believe that everyone might have a story to tell, but not everyone is a writer – any more than everyone has the right combination of skills and personality attributes to be a particle physicist, or a brilliant pianist, or a ballet dancer. But there are so many different ways to tell a story, not just writing, and I think it’s important that everyone should find the way that’s uniquely theirs.
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